Flying Cloud Farm

Flying Cloud Farm near Asheville, North Carolina, produces organically grown vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Produce is sold from a roadside stand, local farmers’ market and a weekly CSA scheme.

On a warm August afternoon, I was so excited to pull into Flying Cloud Farm, to see my dear American family and their farm. 

Along the dusty track, past the roadside farm stand is a packing shed where a crew of young workers are smiling and chatting as they sort through that morning’s fruit and vegetable harvest. The crates are brimming with colour. Juicy red tomatoes, aubergines of pink and deep velvet purples, blackberries and cantaloupes.

Building a farm from scratch

My cousin Annie Louise and her husband Isaiah began farming here over 20 years ago. Starting from scratch on half an acre, with no infrastructure but a heap of energy and passion. Thd first thing they planted were some blueberry bushes. Without money to invest, they developed the farm gradually, reinvesting their earnings each year to purchase infrastructure such as greenhouses, a packing shed and various farm equipment. 

Annie & Isaiah in the early years of their farm
Annie & Isaiah in the early years of their farm

The CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scheme started three years later in 2002, around the time Annie & Isaiah had their second child Ivy. CSA schemes are a valuable way to connect customers and farmers, where the rewards and inherent risks of food production are shared through in a relationship that requires trust and commitment. “Some of our CSA members have been with us a very long time. Many are very committed to the box” Annie remarked. 

Over the years, the local food scene has grown significantly and was boosted even more during the Covid pandemic. In the early years, Annie recalls sitting and twiddling her thumbs at the farmers market, hoping someone would come by. The market is now bustling. Annie says that people have increasingly valued local food, treasuring its high nutritional content and real flavour. 

Some of our customers are real foodies! There are some that are very interested in the nutrition and some that are elderly, with memories of growing up and eating their grandmother’s tomatoes.

The self-serve honor stand was set up in 2001 and has been a valuable way to sell produce. Staff regularly top it up throughout the day, using ice to keep produce cool and fresh. 

Early inspirations

At first, Annie’s parents were skeptical that they could make a living by farming. While farming has been in the family for generations, income was usually supplemented by other work. But when Annie was 21, she travelled to Europe and worked at a small organic farm near Dartmoor. This was the first time she had witnessed people doing diversified organic farming as a livelihood. Seeing this helped inspire her to farm in this way. 

Neither Annie or Isaiah studied agriculture, but drew learning and inspiration from various places along the way, including the organic garden at Warren Willson College where they studied, as well as other farmers, conferences, the Growing for Market publication and writers such as Michael Pollan and books such as The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball.

It’s not a clean or easy life. You get things done, but you never really get to the bottom of your list. It’s a lifestyle, and one that’s very dependent on the weather. We have to be as aware as we can about what’s going on in our surroundings.

The farm

Today, they grow across approximately 20 acres, carefully designing a system that provides a diverse offering of vegetables, berries and cut flowers throughout the year. In their rotation, they also aim for lots of storage crops: roughly an acre of sweet potatoes, an acre of potatoes, an acre of winter squash, together with garlic and onions. Tomatoes are turned into sauces and sold, providing a useful value-added product. They also have an acre of strawberries, an acre of blueberries and half an acre of blackberries. 

Flowers are grown from April to mid-October, for weddings, pick-you-own bouquets as well as CSA members who can opt to receive a bouquet each week. Dried flowers and wreaths are made for the winter.

About a third of the produce is sold in farmer markets, a third in the CSA which has 75 weekly members, and a third on the roadside farm stand, which operates on an honesty box system. 

The value of observation

Annie says that key to the success of their farming practice is showing up and being highly observant. Intimately understanding each field, knowing how it drains, the effects of shading, the changing weed and insect pressures, and understanding their lifecycles. Annie and Isaiah regularly take field walks together to share observations and plan the next steps. Collaboration with other farms has also been helpful, buying in bulk and sharing resources.

Many hands

Of course, it also takes a lot of hands to manage a diversified organic horticultural farm. A steady stream of apprentices and staff work with them, finding the farm through word-of-mouth or the internet. 

We try to give an honest description of the work and find the most important thing for staff to have, is a good attitude; wanting to be there and to work outside. 

Workers range from 18 to 65 years old and in recent years, Annie’s noticed more older people coming to work with them. Some have gone on to have their own small farms and manage farmer markets, or work in social justice and non-profits. 

“Having the employees really invested in the farm has helped a lot. We try to give them a sense of ownership and involvement – from sowing the seed to sale – which gives them a sense of pride about what they are doing, while being more confident to sell and represent the farm at markets”. 

“Are we regenerative?”

At one point, knowing about my interests in regenerative agriculture and conscious of the trends, Annie asked me “What is regenerative agriculture? Do you think we’re regenerative?”. It’s a fair question. In America, the advocates pushing for regenerative agriculture are not typically fruit and vegetable growers1. Yet from the outset, Annie and Isaiah have always strived for a sustainable, ethical, low-input farming system, drawing on organic principles and paying close attention to their soil. The farm also has an abundance of trees, hedgerows and perennial crops, which are positive for so many reasons, besides biodiversity and carbon. They also serve a local community with nourishing, healthy produce and have always welcomed to the farm visitors and others with a curiosity to learn and join in. 

So in many respects, to me, this feels like a very regenerative farm. Particularly the social, health and economic aspects. It doesn’t seem to be degrading to the environment either. But with regards to the carbon lens, it’s hard without measurements to know if the farm has a net-positive carbon footprint or not (I suspect it does, due to the abundance of trees and hedgerows). There are also some aspects, such as whether customers are making special journeys in their cars to buy the produce, which may be unknown and perhaps outside the control or scope of the farm. 

Whatever the case, when it comes to labelling the farm as “regenerative”, there doesn’t appear to be any clear benefits or need for Flying Cloud to do so. 

Adapting to a changing climate

In terms of climate change, Annie admits that she does worry about the future. In the short term, she says “…here, the problem is having too much rain, which can create problems with fungal diseases. We also can’t do more indoor growing [where environmental factors such as rain can be controlled] because of conservation easements – but we like farming outside anyway…”

Over the years, Asheville has grown significantly. Annie mentioned how the area is sometimes described as a climate refuge, attracting residents for its temperate, year-round climate, besides its natural beauty. This is pushing up the house prices and I can imagine this trend will easily continue. The US National Risk Index map shows how coastal regions of the country face a wide range of higher threats, from heatwaves to hurricanes, which means over time, more and more people will be looking to migrate. 

Even so, Asheville will not be immune from the increasingly erratic weather we expect from climate breakdown. Higher temperatures and heavier rain are expected, with increasing risks of wildfire and flooding2. All this isn’t particularly enjoyable to think about, but building resilience is crucial, and having local, sustainably managed farms like Flying Cloud are a vital resource for the community. 

Looking forwards

I have so much admiration for the beautiful farm that Annie & Isaiah have built from scratch. It takes a lot of sweat and toil to build and maintain a farm like this, from building the soil and managing the weed pressures to establishing a loyal customer base and brand. Annie says, “we strive to get better and better at what we do each year. Each year, we grow more food and this year is looking like a gangbusters year!”. Looking forward, Annie feels positive. While they aren’t retiring anytime soon, they do think about the farm’s future and succession. “We are trying to set things up for the next farmer. And they will certainly be way more set up than we were. We don’t know who it will be, but there’s a hope, a possibility, that one of our children will take it on.” Annie says with a smile.


1. It’s typically larger farms that use the regenerative agriculture framing: livestock operations embracing rotational or holistic grazing, and arable operations embracing soil health management principles popularised by farmers like Gabe Brown, which include minimising soil disturbance, ensuring living roots with cover crops and integrating livestock into the system.

2. A North Carolina Climate Science Report in 2020 suggested that if emissions continue to grow rapidly through to the end of the century, North Carolina is projected to warm an additional six to ten degrees by 2100. It’s likely the climate migration we are starting to see today is only the start.